Missouri state government wrestles with massive computer shortcomings

By Kurt Erickson

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    JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) — Key computer systems used by the state of Missouri are so outdated officials are worried some of the only programmers who know how to work with the antiquated technology will retire.

Without their knowledge of a programming language that is rarely used anymore, they say, no one will know how to keep critical functions, such as tax reporting, payroll processing and budgeting, from failing.

The problems span across the sprawling operation of state government, touching people when they purchase a car, apply for Medicaid or cash their state tax refund.

But for years, Gov. Mike Parson and legislators have taken few steps to address what is an increasingly expensive problem.

The latest flaw was exposed this month when the Post-Dispatch reported that the Social Security numbers of school teachers, administrators and counselors across Missouri were vulnerable to public exposure due to programming shortcomings on a website maintained by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The vulnerability was discovered in a web application that allowed the public to search teacher certifications and credentials. The department removed the affected pages from its website Tuesday after being notified of the problem by the Post-Dispatch.

Parson called the newspaper’s work “hacking” and called for a criminal investigation and a possible civil lawsuit.

His tirade put a spotlight on what members of his own administration have been saying for years: The state’s aging fleet of computers is due for an upgrade.

According to budget officials, a true overhaul of the state’s systems will cost an estimated $83.5 million. That cost would also finance a new portal for residents to access various state services.

Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, is championing the use of $2.8 billion in federal relief funds to pay for the information technology upgrades, which could take as long as six years.

“We don’t have time to waste,” Richey told members of a House committee in July.

Personnel moves The focus on the state’s computer system comes at a delicate time for Parson.

Earlier this month, Missouri’s chief information security officer, Stephen Meyer, left for a job at Maryland Heights-based World Wide Technology.

Meyer, who was appointed to be the state’s technology czar in 2018, had been with the state for more than two decades.

In his position, Meyer oversaw daily operations, including incident response planning, metrics, cloud security, professional development, security policy and procedures, and vendor negotiations.

On Tuesday, in a surprise move, Parson axed Sarah Steelman, who had served as commissioner of the Office of Administration since 2017. The commissioner is in charge of IT services for 14 state agencies.

Parson also has made no public move to appoint cybersecurity experts to the newly established Missouri Cybersecurity Commission.

The Legislature established the Missouri Cybersecurity Commission this year with the passage of Senate Bill 49, an omnibus public safety bill. The commission would be charged with identifying risk and vulnerability from cyberattacks of critical infrastructure in Missouri. However, the governor has yet to make any appointments to it since July, when he signed the bill into law.

Rep. Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City, said Parson should get the commission going.

“In light of the events that have transpired this week, I believe the governor cannot wait any longer to appoint members to this commission so it may do the critical work of identifying and rectifying gaps in Missouri’s cyberinfrastructure,” Aune said Friday.

Aune said the governor’s reaction to the Post-Dispatch’s story was a “fiasco.”

“Let’s get down to brass tacks: The Parson administration stored the sensitive, private, personally identifiable information of nearly 100,000 Missouri teachers on a public website, and it could easily be accessed by anyone with even a basic knowledge of the internet. That’s a terrifying fact,” Aune said.

“If we want to stop actual threats to our online infrastructure, the governor should start appointing members to this commission now,” Aune said.

Widespread problem Missouri’s computer woes also affected the launch of the state’s expanded Medicaid program. After being forced to begin the long-sought program via a lawsuit, officials at the Department of Social Services said it would take two months to program their computers to allow for an additional 275,000 low-income Missourians to get enrolled.

The problems don’t stop there.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, the Department of Health and Senior Services had to replace a clunky, two-decade-old homemade computer system it used for tracking disease outbreaks.

Just as states and the federal government were caught flat-footed when it came to having adequate supplies of personal protective equipment on hand in case of a pandemic, the health department said its in-house program has made it tough to track the spread of the deadly disease.

“In the current pandemic circumstances, the outdated technology has met with severe limits on data entry and required DHSS to redirect numerous staff (including efforts by the National Guard and others) in very labor-intensive efforts just to remain caught up on disease reporting,” Department of Health and Senior Services spokeswoman Lisa Cox said at the time.

In addition, purchasing records said the old system, built in 1998, cannot meet federal data collection, security and data transmission requirements related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In response, the state hired a contractor to install a new system over the course of six weeks at $150 an hour.

Lawmakers and the governor did take a significant step this year to modernize the way Missourians buy cars.

Currently, the various computer systems at the Missouri Department of Revenue cannot communicate with each other. That means when someone purchases a vehicle, they cannot pay taxes on it at the dealership.

Under a program that went into effect July 1, motor vehicle dealers were given approval to charge higher fees to car and truck buyers. The law then calls for the dealers to send a percentage of that to the state to build a new computer system that will allow the tax to be paid on-site.

The new fees, which could add $200 to $300 to the price of a vehicle, are expected to generate $13 million per year.

In the upcoming budget, the Office of Administration is seeking at least $26 million to replace the state’s 21-year-old main computer that is written in a code created 60 years ago.

“The system is critical and supportive to all segments of state government,” the budget request says. “Critical components with statewide impact include: Employee payroll processing, vendor payment processing, statewide budgeting, budget and cash controls, annual tax reporting (W2s and 1099s) capital asset tracking, data warehouse capabilities, and federal grant tracking.”

Time running out The request says the clock is ticking because the people who work on the system are approaching retirement age. Without them, the state will likely have to use contract labor to install patches and upgrade programs, resulting in higher costs.

“The staff with knowledge to support the system are dwindling both at the state and at the contractor,” the request said.

A new system could give state officials real-time information for management of cash balances. It could improve security issues and allow other agencies to retire their old systems.

Richey said the time to act is now.

“We can’t say now that we don’t have the money to fix the system,” Richey told members of the House Subcommittee on Federal Stimulus Spending at a July hearing.

He said Missouri residents should not encounter problems when they interact with the state.

“I want that Missourian to be able to access the State of Missouri and see very quickly and efficiently what is available to them,” Richey said.

At the hearing, Steelman said the COVID-19 pandemic helped officials realize that the state needs to improve the online experience for citizens.

With offices closed and people scrambling for assistance, computer-based services became a lifeline for some.

“We caught a little glimpse of what it could look like,” Steelman said. “This is where other states are going.”

“What we’re looking at is laying down the foundation,” Steelman said. “We have systems that sometimes don’t talk to each other. We have a lot of work to do on that.”

“It’s a massive undertaking, but it can be done,” Richey said.

Missouri Chief Information Officer Jeffrey Wann said the infusion of money could help upgrade the state’s systems.

“We have the opportunity to overhaul and to modernize our systems to be able to serve our citizens better,” Wann said. “We can be the best state out there.”

“There’s no reason why our citizens can’t have the same experience that I had yesterday ordering pizza from Domino’s,” Wann said.

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